Blog Archive

Blog Archive – July, 2013

Syrian Drama of Another Order

July 24, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

The blockade on Syria  -on Syrian life not weaponry- reaches into the heart of social, historical and cultural life. This policy is integral to the US-led assault against the country and against Arab national integrity.

No-fly zone, poison gas, foreign guerrillas, sectarian massacres.  These frightening yet alluring, ambitious yet wearying thoughts define Syria today. More reason to take time for other dramas—Syrian TV serials and their politics.

Apart from an opportune ‘Ramadan’ reference, this topic may seem inconsequential or out of place for a nation engulfed in conflict. Yet the subject isn’t too slight a target for US policies.

Extending its aggression against Syria into every corner of the economy, the US has seen TV productions by its longstanding enemy dumped from international satellites, a move that essentially severs global access. This move followed withdrawal of supporting infrastructure for widely popular Syrian programs by US-Gulf state allies, erstwhile co-sponsors, customers and distributors of TV dramas originating in Damascus.

Now, why would anyone censor Syrian TV? Are we not led to believe that Syrian media’s sole purpose is to mislead rather than inform? How could anything of value originate from that “brutal dictatorship”? Anyway, how can “mindless” TV soaps warrant an international embargo?

People familiar with the range of public issues which Syrian producers address through popular drama will understand.

Over the past decade the Damascus-based industry rose to become a major center of high quality TV drama. Its productions won admiration across the Arab-speaking world, rivaling once dominant Egyptian dramas.

What Syrian dramas, mostly made by private companies, offer is best illustrated by two productions:-- Bab al-Hara, first released during Ramadan month in 2006, and a hugely successful 2010 production, Ma Malakat Aymanukum. Bab al-Hara is a colonial period drama typical of the historical productions Syria excels in. This and dramatizations of early epochs hold special significance throughout the Arab world through portrayals and reflections of Arab civilization’s accomplishments and historical events. By contrast with Bab al-Hara, Ma Malakat explores contemporary social concerns: –religious fanaticism, homosexuality, abuse of women. Written by Syrian author Halla Diyab, Ma-Malakat  was directed by her accomplished compatriot Najdat Ansour. The work of these and other brilliant Syrian artists is renowned.

Yes, armed conflict itself thwarts artistic production. Thousands of Syria’s most talented and liberal-thinking people-- actors, designers, musicians, writers, technicians-- are jobless today. Many flee in search of outside employment, like those featured in a CNN token Ramadan story ( 

Theater is one of many institutions devastated by war. But the destruction of this industry is not collateral damage. It’s deliberate. The sale of Syrian series came to a standstill when networks in Saudi Arabia and UAE (locations of major distributors) cancelled orders for Syrian productions. Next, in June 2012 the Arab League itself ordered satellite transmitters Hotbird, Nilesat and Arabsat to cease carrying Syrian media including Syrian TV and Syrian Drama TV. Whereas Syria exported 25 new TV series in 2010,  the following year producers were able to sell only one—a direct effect of the US-designed embargo.

Of course this blockade has significant economic consequences for Syria. But its real target is Syria’s cultural and ideological position in the region.

The Arab public and specialists recognize that Syrian productions are unrivaled in their authenticity and ideology. Syria is known to have the highest standards in historical research (applied to the arts) and in Arabic language. Besides the technical, literary and entertainment value of specific stories, Syria’s dramatic productions represent a struggling political consciousness--the Arab nationalist ideal. (This includes celebration of Palestinian resistance.)

Syrian dramas invoke regional pride and values largely absent in productions from neighboring countries. The industry’s collapse was targeted because these productions embody and espouse values which the West seeks to eliminate. Nothing is overlooked, it seems, in the US design against Syria.

Meanwhile Turkish TV serials, translated into Arabic, and with a focus on romance and family conflict keep people distracted. A coincidence?

[ Syrian Drama of Another Order ]

And the Mountains Echoed

July 20, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

More than a good Ramadan read, a new book by Khaled Hosseini. From the first page I was smitten.

 This Afghan-born author has done it again. I read and reviewed his first book The Kite Runner only several years after its release. It was unarguably a fine, fine piece of writing. I bypassed Hosseini’s second novel and chanced across this one, his latest, during a casual browse in my local library.

Besides being a well-crafted narrative And the Mountains Echoed is a fast-moving, disquieting story about … About what: A boy and his stolen sister? Afghanistan from 1949 to today? Loss and recovery? Daughters? Mothers? Family loyalty? East versus West values? Or, how war forever separates families?

It is hard to say which. That Hosseini’s story defies easy characterization may be a sign of his skill as a writer. Because Hosseini has certainly gone beyond any specific ‘Afghan’ experience in this novel. Employing techniques used by mystery writers, he lifts us out of one place and time, and drops us into another where, for a moment, we are uncertain of our location and we temporarily lose the thread of the narrative, only to find ourselves pondering another episode in an emerging enigma. So And the Mountains Echoed is not a cultural narrative. Avoid this book if your purpose is to understand that exotic troubled land and then, at your dinner tables, compassionately lament the fate of Afghan girls.

If I can’t define the theme, I can tell you how it opens and closes. The book begins lyrically, in 1952, in a bucolic setting. A father is telling Abdullah and his sister Pari a fairy tale; it’s a fable of a loving father who challenges a child-stealing monster in order to rescue his youngest son. Although the man saves the village, he cannot reclaim his lost child and, mercifully perhaps, the monster gives the man a potion that prevents him from remembering the boy and his unsuccessful journey.

In contrast to its opening, the book ends with a rather banal experience in a California nursing home. There, an aging woman (Pari) finds the brother from whom she was separated by a sad event in Afghanistan 60 earlier. Now in advanced state of a kind of dementia, brother Abdullah is unable to recognize Pari (who has come in search of him), or indeed to remember anything about his homeland.

But And the Mountains Echoed is not a sad story. It is filled with engaging characters of dazzling and credible diversity who Hosseini makes us care about-- from Uncle Nabi who negotiated his little niece’s sale, to this same girl’s early lovers and then her husband and children in France, to her suicidal poet-step-mother self-exiled in Paris, to capricious foreign NGO staff in contemporary Kabul.

Nabi (uncle to Abdullah and Pari) is a runaway lad from Shadbagh village who finds employment as chauffeur and cook to a Kabul family. Nabi is secretly loved by his employer and remains at the grand house with the man after his flighty wife (the poet) has departed for France with their ‘adopted child’ (the lost sister Pari). Nabi becomes increasingly pivotal in the narrative as a link for his fractured family. He eventually passes the task to the Kabul residence’s next occupant Dr. Markos to whom, in an early chapter, he recounts the family history in a long letter (extending 90 pages here) which finds its way to Paris and into the hands of the stolen sister of Abdullah.

Markos, a surgeon working for an NGO in 2010 in Kabul, is a caring man. But it is not in a Kabul hospital where we glimpse what underlies Markos’ compassion. Instead author Hosseini has Markos narrating another long chapter where he flashes back to his childhood in Greece, an enduring friendship with a disfigured girl his own age, and his upbringing by his mother, a wise, strong woman.

From Nabi, Markos assumes the role of envoy, joining separated generations from Shadbagh village with Kabul, then Paris, then California. We meet a classic Afghan warlord, former fighter, now village patron who has in fact stolen (and remade) Shadbagh village; but it is his young son and this boy’s chance friendship with an angry, homeless lad that somehow eclipses the ills of the warlord. We meet Amra Ademovic working in a Kabul hospital who in turn is an entry to stricken children, war veterans and touring foreigners. We also share the strange relationship of two village sisters Parwana and Masooma whose role in the story may simply be to enhance the theme that although people make some hard decisions, some less benevolent than others, no one is really judged as bad and no action is inherently wrong. There is little place for blame or remorse in And the Mountains Echoed.

2013 Penguin Riverhead Press

[ And the Mountains Echoed ]

A rite for a right:-- the US Department of Justice’s solution to hunger strikers during Ramadan

July 07, 2013

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

A Ramadan gift to eclipse all others:— in these multicultural-sensitive times, the American Department of Justice has surely set a new standard. Either some creative criminologist or an imaginative Muslim chaplain seeking to justify his post, or an hurriedly updated Ramadan guidebook, has prevailed on Guantanamo prison authorities just in time for the Muslim holy month.

What has our justice department done in response to a petition to end force-feeding of striking prisoners? It will feed the men by nasal tubes only after sunset and before dawn! This, we are told, is to make the justice department compliant with religious precepts. No human rights; instead, a rite. Surely this is a contemptuous reply by the DOJ to legal appeals representing hunger-striking inmates in its infamous island prison.

So when fasting in coming weeks, should I and a billion other Muslims feel we are in synch with our desperate brothers at Guantanamo gasping as feeding tubes are forced through their nasal passages and into their stomachs. The striking men’s religious precepts will be respected while the prisoners’ demand that they not to be fed at all are firmly denied.

This decision adds to the many injustices Guantanamo detainees have had to endure for more than a decade. Who could have thought up this resolution? 

But there is a cheerless irony in the action. Even though the DOJ may consider itself religion-compliant in this decision, apparently no one suggested to them that obligatory fasting rules might be lifted under the circumstances of these prisoners’ conditions. As bizarre as the practice is, force-feeding could be interpreted as a ‘medical procedure’ and would thereby exempt these Muslims from fasting. Or, since fasting regulations specify that nothing should pass one’s lips during the month, then force-feeding through the nasal passage may not, strictly speaking, be interpreted as imbibing food or drink. This argument too would allow authorities to bypass (sic) fasting parameters.

Surely this complex problem calls for a ‘fatwa’. Could this be the first time in Islamic experience that force-feeding has confronted our community of scholars, men who eagerly pronounce on the most humdrum and fatuous habits of Muslims’ domestic life? And we will need a revised Ramadan Kit produced by CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations;, a US Muslim rights organization that prides itself in its close co-operation with US justice authorities.

While some Muslim rights organizations called for the end of the force-feeding procedure, all are silent on the absurdity of the DOJ Ramadan decision for Guantanamo’s protesters.

Comments welcome:

[ A rite for a right:-- the US Department of Justice’s solution to hunger strikers during Ramadan ]

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